What sort of parenting matters

“Culture cramming” doesn’t turn children into academic superstars, according to a long term U.S. Education Department study. For example, well-educated parents’ children tend to read well, even if Mom and Dad don’t read frequently to the tykes. USA Today summarizes what factors matter and or don’t:

Matters: The child has highly educated parents.

Doesn’t: The child regularly watches TV at home.

Matters: The child’s parents have high income.

Doesn’t: The child’s mother didn’t work between birth and kindergarten.

Matters: The child’s parents speak English in the home.

Doesn’t: The child’s parents regularly take him to museums.

Matters: The child’s mother was 30 or older at time of the child’s birth.

Doesn’t: The child attended Head Start.

What parents do (museum visits) or buy (home computer) doesn’t seem to matter; what parents are does matter.

How can it be that a child with a lot of books in her home does well at school even if she never reads them? Because parents who buy a lot of children’s books tend to be smart and well-educated to begin with, and they pass on their smarts and work ethic to their kids. (This theory is supported by the fact that the number of books in a home is just as strongly correlated with math scores as reading scores.) Or the books may suggest that these are parents who care a great deal about education and about their children in general, which results in an environment that rewards learning . . . A book is, in fact, less a cause of intelligence than an indicator.

But take the kids to the museum anyhow.

Read Jenny D’s analysis of the story.

About Joanne


  1. JennyD says:

    Hi Joanne. This is an interesting post and article. But it makes me nuts and I will write more about it later.

    I’ve worked extensively with ECLS data, and while the data do show what the USA Today article says, the data say much, more more. It’s not about museum trips, or TV watching. ECLS data counts that up, but these economists have analyzed the data as economists rather than social scientists. They’ve not considered the multliple factors at work in wealthy homes that have less to do with genes and more to do with money.

    These guys would allow one to reach the conclusion that if you took children of wealthy, educated parents and put them into an impoverished home where they watched TV, never went to museums, and never saw a book, they would come out the same. I don’t think that’s right.

    Anyway, I have to look more closely at this study.

  2. I thought there was a fair body of research out there that said reading to kids, and especially talking (NOT baby talk, ordinary conversation) was really important to their development.

    And how did they tease out the “books make you smart” vs. “you have books because you’re smart” difference? (Although, if having books around the house are a marker of one’s intelligence, then damn, I must be at near-Einstein level)

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Back to the old argument – pertinent now because Palo Alto is putting a school tax on the ballot – do Palo Alto schools do well because of the students, or do Palo Alto students do well because of the schools?
    [Palo Alto schools have 500 ‘outsider’ students. I wonder if their performance matches the Palo Alto mean or the mean from whence they came?]

  4. Mike in Texas says:

    I remember reading a study, possibly by Jim Trelease, that said it is not just reading to a child that makes the difference but also the interaction between child and parent during the reading process.

    Regardless, when parents of young children ask me what they can do to help their child I tell them “read to them, read to them, read to them”. And when they’re watching TV, turn the sound off and the closed captioning on and make them read what’s on TV. Its not quite as good as reading on your own but its better than regular passive TV viewing.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    I loved Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics, which the cited article is an excerpt from.

    Now I wonder, though, if I should have bothered buying it, seeing as Levitt & Dubner seem determined to excerpt every single page of it in some print magazine or newspaper. The whole thing is ending up on the web for free. I could have saved my money and read the whole thing online.

  6. I don’t understand what this study has to do with “rigorous economic analysis,” as claimed in the review. It sounds to me like the kind of data that one would analyze with multiple regression, a technique widely used in the social sciences and lots of other places…nothing particularly economics-oriented about it.

    Also, those who analyze data like this should be alert to interaction effects. Hypothetically, for example, it might be that reading to kids has little effect when the family is rich; great effect when they are poor. It’s not clear from the review whether or not this kind of interaction was properly accounted for in the study.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    I suppose the authors say it was subjected to “rigorous economic analysis” because it was subjected to rigorous mathematical analysis (yes, regression) by an economist.

    Some people say that Levitt is not an economist and isn’t doing economics. Economists claim him as one of their own, and that’s good enough for me.

  8. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    I am surprised that the parent speaking English in the home is a major factor. All of the Asian families I have ever known speak their native language in the home. Their reasoning is that their children will learn English quickly from their freinds and from watching television but if the children don’t learn their native language first they will not learn it.

    This is from an admittedly small sample and I have always lived in areas with very few Asians so that might make my sample non-typical.

  9. Ross:  It may be that the Asian ESL numbers are dwarfed by the Hispanics, and an analysis which does not separate the various non-English languages spoken at home will not find the correlation.

  10. Richard Nieporent says:

    But take the kids to the museum anyhow.

    Actually don’t until they are old enough to appreciate it. How many times have you seen a mother dragging her two or three year old child through an art museum saying “Oh, Johnny, see the pretty picture. Isn’t that nice.” The only problem is that Johnny couldn’t care less because he is totally bored out of his mind. Maybe we should arrest parent’s for cruelty who inflict art museums on little children.

  11. If the analysis was really rigorous — and the methodology should be available — it included both regression *and* analysis of variance, which controls for interactions.

  12. Mike McKeown says:

    Don’t read to your kids because its good for them, do it because it’s fun for you and for them. It’s fun even when they are only a month or two old, and, if you start early, they get used to longer stories and even chapter books.

    One other benefit, which I have seen across three generations now, is that you develop a whole set of family Cultural Literacy touchstones. It makes it easier to keep talking to each other with connections to pleasant memories.

  13. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    In the spirit of the article, my own observations:

    Matters: Common sense, insight, wisdom, experience.
    Doesn’t Matter: Endless social ‘junk’ science ‘research’ studies that purport to be reliable.

    Matters: An intact, functional, caring, loving, ethical family.
    Doesn’t matter: What the ‘village’ thinks.

    Matters: Effort, desire to improve, the work ethic.
    Doesn’t Matter: Educational fads such as “Constructivism”, “Differentiation”, “Bilingual Education”, “Tolerance and Diversity Training”, “Whole Language”, all the myriad Title 1 programs, political correctness in any form. Improving one’s teaching strategies is not going to solve the basic problem students/parents without a sense of the value of education.

    Matters: Teachers who actually teach the content of their academic/arts/vocational subjects.
    Doesn’t Matter: Social engineering in public schools.

    Matters: What happens in the classroom.
    Doesn’t Matter: What happens in education think tanks, universities grad schools of education, the school’s main office, or anywhere else non-teachers make policies for teachers.

    Matters: What I think, say and do.
    Doesn’t Matter: What you think, say and do.
    {Tongue in cheek, of course}


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